Turtles vs. Tortoises

Does it have a shell? Is it a reptile? Well then it's gotta be turtle...or is it a tortoise? Turtles and tortoises belong to an order of animals called Testudines, or sometimes referred to as Chelonians. Chelonian is a broader order that also includes extinct turtles. Even though they might look pretty similar, there are some key traits in how they look, and how they interact with their environment that you can learn to tell these animals apart! Watch the video and then continue reading below to learn more about the differences between turtles and tortoises.


Turtles generally...

  • Are aquatic creatures, and can spend the majority of their time in the water (some in freshwater, others in seawater). But you may see them come on land to lay their eggs or simply to catch some sun and warm up.
  • Have webbed toes to help them swim, just like a duck!
  • A flatter shell that is better for movement in the water, that is also usually lighter weight.
  • Can eat meat in addition to veggies and greens, so they are omnivores. This typically includes invertebrates like jellyfish or insects, but larger turtles can eat fish, mammals, amphibians, and other reptiles as well.
  • Have a shorter lifespan of roughly 20-50 years on average.

Tortoises generally...

  • Are land dwelling creatures, and most are actually bad swimmers.
  • Short and sturdy legs without webbing.
  • Dome shaped shell that is harder and sturdier.
  • Most are full on herbivores that don't eat any insects or meat.
  • Have a longer lifespan of roughly 80-150 years.

So next time you see a reptile with a shell, you'll know what to look out for to spot the differences! But, if you're ever stuck trying to decide between a turtle and a tortoise, just know that most places around the world call all members of the Testudines order turtles. So when in doubt, it's safest to just say turtle! While there are docile and friendly species of both turtles and tortoises, you may want to consider a turtle for a pet. That's because tortoises can live so long, they can outlive humans and will need to be left in your will!

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